political revue


Year LXII, 2020, Single Issue, Page 83



Responsibility and Politics
(and the Problem of Power)*





Responsibility is an extension of awareness. The word derives from the Latin respondere, meaning to answer, in the sense of being ready to answer for our actions and the consequences they have.

If we accept the idea that the world is now a community of destiny (regardless of whether this is universally recognised), then we can assume that responsibility today should take on the meaning proposed by Hans Jonas in his work The Imperative of Responsibility.[1] Jonas was a theorist of a future-oriented concept of ethics called the ethics of responsibility.

In his view, the principle of responsibility should apply to everything we do, and he therefore argues that individuals “must” always consider (to an extent I would define extreme) the future consequences of their choices and actions: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”.

Jonas, considering the now disturbing reach of human action made possible by technological progress, maintains that it has become crucial to develop a new theory of ethics able to address the ensuing possible catastrophic consequences on the life of our planet. We must fear that which can be produced by excessive technological advancement, linked to pursuit of the utopian promise of unlimited progress (which takes no account of the limits imposed by nature, seen merely as an object that can be manipulated at will).

 “Duty to fear” the possible catastrophic impact of our actions must go hand in hand with the “courage to own” them, since assumption of responsibility is a crucial prerequisite to any attempt to address, and seek political solutions to, the great problems of our times: overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, and the problems of energy and the environment.

We might take the above ideas as a theoretical reference point when considering the issue of responsibility, an objective by which we should all be guided.

With regard to the relationship between responsibility and politics, which is the topic of this contribution, Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation [2] is undoubtedly a key reference text. In it, he considers some aspects of the question of the ethics of responsibility, albeit without taking his arguments to the extremes that Jonas does.

It is useful, for the purpose of our discussion, to note that Weber defines politics as “striving for a share of power or for influence on the distribution of power, whether it be between states or between groups of people contained within a single state”. He therefore sees a strong link between politics and power.

In this regard, he suggests that legitimate power, or authority, can be divided into three types:

— traditional authority, stemming from long-established customs and practices (the power of the “prince”);

— charismatic authority, stemming from the magnetic personality of a leader, warlord or politician;

— legal authority, stemming from a willingness to obey, meaning a readiness to fulfil duties in compliance with a rule.

Weber, discussing the concept of politics as a vocation, draws a distinction between:

— individuals who live “off” politics (politics is their main source of income); and

— individuals who live “for” politics, meaning those whose political engagement derives from personal passion, and for whom, in some cases, politics may be practised as a secondary profession.

He then goes on to identify three key qualities that politicians must possess: passion, a sense of responsibility, and judgement. The worst defect, on the other hand, is vanity, which can result in two “deadly sins”:

— the absence of a cause to justify their actions;

— no sense of responsibility, which translates into the desire for power for power’s sake.

According to Max Weber, politics and ethics cannot be bedfellows: the link between politics and the state’s monopoly on the use of violence makes it impossible to apply absolute religious ethics to politics. On the other hand, it can be noted that all ethically oriented actions refer either to the ethics of principles or to the ethics of responsibility, and that these, albeit two opposing categories, can in turn be traced back to political behaviour.

The first category is characterised by reference to an ideal principle, which is the only criterion used to distinguish right from wrong. Accordingly, if this principle is right, every action inspired by it will be good, whatever its consequences.

The ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, is characterised by the need to carefully weigh up the consequences of one’s actions.

However, no one can lay down when one should act according to one of these categories as opposed to the other, Weber says. 

At this point, I wish to set out some considerations that may seem like a digression from the issues of responsibility and power. However, drawn from a presentation given at a national conference on psychosynthesis, they actually illustrate aspects of an individual-level approach to these issues.

The speaker was psychiatrist Daniele De Paolis, who set the scene: “We are in Jerusalem, outside the praetorium, and the governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, is addressing the high priests and the people: ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ When Pilate saw that he getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility.’” (Matthew, 27, 22-24)[3]. This Gospel excerpt offers interesting insights into the questions of power and responsibility. The episode recounted, in particular Pilate’s gesture of washing his hands, has come to symbolise the refusal to accept responsibility. Accepting responsibility for our decisions, and ensuing actions, takes courage. What prevails in Pilate, however (although he cloaks his decision in the excuse that it is his duty to let the matter be handled by locals), is self-interest, specifically the wish to lead a quiet life without taking any risks, and to keep afloat without assuming unnecessary responsibilities before public opinion. But the overriding sentiment in Pilate is deadly “indifference”, which De Paolis calls the slow death of humankind.

Responsibility — “answerability” — is something we are obliged to reckon with if we want to exercise the prerogative of the human species, namely the possibility to choose and decide. It is natural to feel anxious when we are faced with a choice, because there is always the risk “we might make the wrong one”, with all its attendant consequences. This is why people are so often reluctant to take responsibility for their choices.

But if we understand responsibility to mean the ability to act appropriately and effectively, then responsible choices must also mean free and conscious ones.

“‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered: ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’” (John, 19,10-11). These words describe an approach to power that is, at once, both chilling and sublime. Pilate is a powerful official, working for Caesar: his main role is to keep order in what is one of the empire’s most turbulent provinces. Although his exchanges with his interlocutor elicit stirrings of conscience, he nevertheless ends up preferring a quiet life, not wanting to risk angering the people and, consequently, the emperor. The important point, however, is that Pilate has power over Jesus solely because it has been given to him by Caesar. Instead, the Pharisees and all the men of the Sanhedrin are “guilty of a greater sin”, since there is no Caesar above them; they are guided only by their own consciences and by their desire to perpetuate a caste-based power system. “Power” has a number of meanings: having the power to do something can mean having the faculty, ability or possibility to do it; power can mean energy or strength; it can also denote a role or position of command. The word “power” can refer, at the same time, both to the aforementioned energy (or role) and to its use. In psychosynthesis, all this is encapsulated by the term “will”. Will is the hidden power of human beings and it corresponds to our capacity or possibility to influence life. It is built on two cornerstones: freedom and responsibility.

In particular, it is our responsibility to transform our “potential” into “action”.

Power should always be treated as a means, not as an end, and we can manage it only if we succeed in remaining detached from it: in short, to manage power is to use it, not be used by it (Seneca).

Although my digression ends here, there is a further aside that I wish to make, and it concerns the way in which some authors understand politics. According to Rosmini and subsequently Luigi Sturzo, politics should be understood as able to limit power.

This point brings us back to the original thread of this presentation, and allows me offer some closing thoughts on the question of power.

Let me start with a brutal example. A few years ago, in the USA, a man was arrested after keeping a number of women enslaved for years. Asked why he had done it, he answered starkly, “Because I could”. In this case, the power exercised was absolute and unfettered by ethical limits of any kind. As such, it recalls the power wielded by the absolute sovereign in history (the sovereign, however, not just any man). But even without drawing such an extreme comparison, this case also illustrates the fact that power in itself is attractive, i.e., capable of giving pleasure: “the thrill of power”. This explains why many people (far more than one might imagine) regard the securing of a position of power solely in terms of securing privileges, rather than shouldering greater responsibilities. And indeed, absurd as it is, human activity is sometimes organised in ways that, by equating maximum power with maximum privilege (rather than maximum responsibility), actually fail to associate power with responsibility.

When this happens, responsibility ends up being assigned to subjects without power (there are various possible examples, including one I could cite from my own field of work, which I will spare you). Responsibility without power is a distortion of the system, just as power without responsibility is (although the latter is perhaps easier to spot). 

What this means, in relation to our discussion of the issues of responsibility and politics, is this: wherever humankind has established (political) systems inadequate for managing the problems faced, the decision makers within them find themselves burdened with responsibility for addressing problems, yet lacking the tools (power) they need to do so.

All this inevitably results in a lowering of the calibre of the political class (mediocre politicians), because the best people (those who want to realise, or “transform”, their potential in the sense indicated in the comments referring to the psychosynthesis congress) will never be willing to devote themselves to politics as long as it remains “politics with a small p” (i.e., unable to address problems properly).

Therefore, although we think that political decision-makers have the power to decide things, they do not; and without this power, the risk is that the responsibility that should go hand in hand with power will also be lacking.

In truth, the only responsibility we have (each and every one of us) is to lead our world towards a situation in which it (and its problems) can be properly governed, in other words, to build a new power, starting from the European federation and designed to culminate in global federation.

I wish to end with a small observation drawn from one of the School of Health Management courses I have attended, but applicable to our movement, too. Assigning (although I would use the word assuming) responsibilities within an organisation is not the same as assigning (or assuming) particular slices of power. Instead, it means giving a person the opportunity to undertake to answer for his or her actions, and their consequences, in the full awareness of being part of a living organism in which every organic unit is made up of single parts (individuals) that have a conscience, an identity and a purpose.

* Contribution presented during a debate on Federalism and the Concepts of Political Power, Power, Statehood and Sovereignty, held in Florence on 17-18 October 2020 and organised by the Debate Office of the European Federalist Movement.

[1] Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[2] Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, in: Id. The Vocation Lectures (D. Owen and T.B. Strong, eds), Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2004.

[3] Daniele De Paolis, Potere e responsabilità, XXIII Congresso nazionale di Psicosintesi (XXIII Italian National Congress of Psychosynthesis), Castiglione della Pescaia, 24-27 April 2008,




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